Austin Riley Could be Spark the Atlanta Braves Need

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By the time this article is read, Austin Riley will likely have hit another home run. If he has, this time it will be for the Atlanta Braves. Riley has been on a hot streak of historic proportions lately. In May, the 22-year-old is hitting .360 with 10 home runs and a 1.478 OPS for Triple-A Gwinnett. After Ender Inciarte exited Tuesday’s game with the St. Louis Cardinals, reports surfaced that Riley would get the call up to Atlanta. His hot bat could be the spark the team needs to make another playoff appearance this season.

2018 Redux?

Early last season the Braves found themselves sitting in third place in the NL East. They were already sitting 2.5 games behind the New York Mets and Philadelphia Phillies after only 23 games. They seemed destined for another middling, mediocre rebuild season as most had predicted for them. Enter Ronald Acuna Jr.

Acuna got the call up from the minors in late April. The Braves immediately plugged him in as the everyday left fielder. The top prospect did not disappoint. He helped lead the Braves to the division title and claimed the NL Rookie of the Year.

After the Braves signed Josh Donaldson to a one year deal this off-season the plan was for Riley to spend another season in the minors. Donaldson got off to a slow start, but he has hit much better lately. This means that Riley’s natural third base position is blocked for now. Riley was expected to see some time in the outfield this spring. However, he didn’t see any game action in the outfield during the Grapefruit League. When Nick Markakis was signed, the outfield was considered set for the season.

Inciarte’s Injury Opens the Door

Through about a quarter of the season, the Braves again find themselves looking up at the Phillies in the standings. The most glaring team need is in the bullpen, but Inciarte’s early-season struggles, paired with Austin Riley’s recent tear had many wondering if Riley would be making the short drive to Atlanta sooner rather than later. That answer was made easier Tuesday night when Inciarte was pulled early in the game with back tightness.

A trip to the injured list for Inciarte gives the Braves the opportunity to audition their power-hitting prospect and get another run-producing bat in their lineup. Riley began getting reps in the outfield recently with the Triple-A Gwinnett Stripers in preparation for a potential call up. Many young players would struggle offensively while attempting to learn a new position. Instead, Riley has continued to tear the cover off the ball.

Here To Stay?

Austin Riley has started four of the last six games for the Stripers in the outfield.  In that six-game stretch, he is batting .291 with four home runs and ten RBI. No one is projecting the former first-round pick as a Gold Glove outfielder, but he doesn’t appear to be a liability in his new position either.

If Riley can be serviceable in the outfield and continue to hit the ball, he may find himself on the big league roster even after Inciarte is ready to return. Inciarte is struggling this season, only hitting .218 thus far. The versatility of Charlie Culberson and Johan Camargo allow the Braves some unique benefits in how they choose to construct their roster. The benefit of Riley’s bat could be the shot in the arm they need to get on track.

Main Photo: Embed from Getty Images